Columnist Claire Morenon: You can eat local all winter long

Daily Hampshire Gazette,January28, 2020

It has been 10 years since the first weekly winter farmers’ market was established in the Valley. Northampton’s was the first, following several years of successful one-day Winter Fare markets in Greenfield. Today, we’re lucky to have regular winter markets in Greenfield, Hadley, Northampton, Springfield and newly established in Holyoke.

If you haven’t stopped by one of the winter markets yet, go! You’ll be shocked at the array of beautiful local food that is available during these cold and dark months: leafy greens, winter roots and squashes, fruit, meat, cheese, eggs, honey, maple syrup, herbs, jam, pickles, and baked goods, plus beautiful handmade goods and crafts.

Winter markets are a rich source of inspiration for any home cook, a warm and friendly place to mingle with friends and neighbors, and a great place to grab a pastry or cup of soup. Winter markets are also a great place to use the benefits of the Healthy Incentives Program, which provides an instant rebate when shoppers use SNAP to purchase produce directly from participating local farms.

Winter markets bring clear benefits to local farms. Winter sales have allowed some farms to expand production and increase their overall income, and stretching sales throughout the winter months eases the financial pressures that farms face in the spring, when expenses pile up in preparation for the main growing season.

Year-round sales mean year-round employment, offering better jobs to staff and making it more possible for farms to retain skilled employees. And the opportunity to sell products directly to shoppers throughout the winter is an obvious boon to farmers who have always had products available all year, like meat, cheese, or honey producers.

Before a group of volunteers organized the first one-day Winter Fare market in Greenfield in 2008, there was very little local produce available during the winter months. Most vegetable farms didn’t have the infrastructure needed to grow, store, and sell their produce throughout the year, including greenhouses for hardy winter greens, storage facilities for root vegetables and squash, space for washing and packing produce in freezing weather, and insulated vehicles for transporting cold-sensitive produce.

Most of the produce available at winter markets is grown during the summer and fall, which requires farms to dedicate land and staff time during the busiest time of year. These are costly investments, which means it’s inherently risky for a small local business to opt in. Many local farms have decided not to take that risk (or to give up the more restful time that winter otherwise brings). For those that have, reliable winter markets are vital to making those commitments pay off.

Winter markets are, themselves, more costly to run than summer markets. It’s expensive to rent indoor space, and it has been challenging for the winter markets to find spaces that are large enough to accommodate them, centrally located to draw customers and affordable. Market managers must ensure that there are enough vendors paying fees to cover these higher overhead costs, but also be cautious not to spread customer dollars among too many vendors — otherwise farmers won’t be able to justify the cost of participating.

Another challenge for winter markets is that, as Americans have become less and less connected to our food sources over the last couple of generations, the rhythms of the seasons are less visible in our diets. Foods that were fleeting seasonal treats for our great-grandparents, like strawberries and fresh sweet corn, are now shipped around the world every day of the year and are unremarkable for their ubiquity.

Even so, I believe that many of us can still feel that seasonal pull: toward crisp green salads and asparagus when the land wakes up in the spring, toward bursting sweet peaches and tomatoes during the swell of summer and toward the warmth and comfort of rich stews and roasts during the depths of winter.

If you’ve never shopped at a winter market, or if you’ve stopped in but haven’t made it a regular part of your grocery routine, no shame here! But here’s a thought experiment for this coming month: what foods would feel really nourishing to prepare and eat? Maybe sweet potatoes pureed into a creamy soup with spicy flavors, or a whole roasted chicken with lots of roasted vegetables, or kale cooked until it’s soft with a little bacon, or an apple crisp sweetened with maple syrup or honey.

Swing by your winter market and see where the offerings take you!

Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).